Super League Grand Final: Wigan 4-8 St Helens

St Helens celebrate
St Helens retained their Super League title by beating Wigan with a try after the full-time hooter
Wigan Warriors (0) 4
Try: Bibby
St Helens (2) 8
Try: Welsby Goals: Coote 2

Teenager Jack Welsby scored a last-gasp try as St Helens retained their Super League crown against Wigan Warriors with the most dramatic climax in Grand Final history.

Welsby’s decisive try came after the full-time hooter, touching down after a drop-goal attempt hit the post.

Extra time was imminent with the score 4-4, Lachlan Coote with two penalties and Wigan’s Jake Bibby scoring a try.

But Welsby pounced as Bevan French hesitated to claim a thrilling win.

Having the youngest player on the field score the winning try in such sensational fashion gave Saints, England and Great Britain legend James Graham a triumphant farewell.

But it was a heart-breaking way to send Wigan talisman Sean O’Loughlin into retirement.

Defences on top in thrilling final

Zak Hardaker held up
Wigan’s Zak Hardaker is held up over the line by desperate St Helens defending

No moment summed up the commitment and ferocity of the first half better than Saints’ effort to hold Zak Hardaker up over the line in the 28th minute, with five defenders rushing across to deny the Warriors the first points of the game.

It was a defensive effort celebrated like a try.

Up until that moment, it was Wigan’s stubborn defence repelling a St Helens side that dominated possession that defined the contest.

It was not until a shoulder charge from Morgan Smithies on Coote in the final minute of the half that Wigan conceded, with the forward gifting Saints two points and the half-time lead with a penalty.

The defending champions, playing in their alternative blue, continued to pound Wigan in waves but struggled to break their resistance.

An effort from Zeb Taia, another decorated Saint playing his final game, was as close as anyone got to a try in the first hour, with his touchdown from a James Roby kick ruled out as he was marginally offside in pursuit of the delicate grubber.

A stumble from Bibby on the right wing saw a chance go begging for Wigan, but it was a slip he quickly atoned for as he dived over for the opening try after 65 gruelling minutes.

Jake Bibby try for Wigan
Jake Bibby’s try gave Wigan a 4-2 lead

Hardaker’s conversation attempt came off the bar, allowing Coote to level with seven minutes remaining with his second penalty of the night after Jackson Hastings was adjudged to have caught Theo Fages with a high tackle.

Saints half-back Fages was the first to try to win it with a kick after that with a drop-goal attempt, and his miss was followed up by a Hardaker penalty that was agonisingly short and right of the posts with two minutes remaining.

Then, with the last action of the game, Tommy Makinson went for a long-range drop-goal of his own, which came off the post and bounced behind the Wigan goal, where it was pounced upon by 19-year-old Welsby ahead of French to spark celebrations for Saints.

Drama behind closed doors

These two fierce rivals last met in a Grand Final in 2014 and it was in front of a raucous crowd of more than 70,000 at Old Trafford – home of not only Manchester United, but Super League’s biggest occasion for 21 years.

But at the end of a 2020 campaign hit hard by the pandemic, there was no trip to the Theatre of Dreams.

Instead, Hull FC’s KCOM Stadium was the makeshift stage.

In a city where rugby league passions run high, it remained a fitting venue on a freezing November night.

But in the absence of fans during the ongoing global health crisis, it was a game of unparalleled intensity and physicality despite being robbed of an electric atmosphere and pulsating soundtrack befitting of the occasion.

Graham signs off as champion

St Helens' James Graham celebrates
James Graham (centre) celebrates St Helens’ dramatic victory in his last game before retirement

The relentless action ensured the showdown on the Humber – which was low on points but high on drama – will be remembered as a classic.

And with the sub-plot of each side having a modern-day great of the English game playing their final match before retirement, it was guaranteed to be a memorable occasion even before kick-off.

Only one man could sign off as champion, and it was Graham who brought his distinguished 17-year career to an end with a second Super League title and his first since 2006, having previously been part of five Grand Final-losing sides.

He was able to see out his career in fitting fashion despite serious concerns over his chances of playing in the final after suffering a head injury in the first half of the semi-final thrashing of Catalans Dragons a week earlier.

There was also an early moment of worry for the veteran prop as medics attended to him after he was hit by an unsighted Tommy Leuluai tackle.

The forward, who spent eight years in Australia’s NRL competition with the Canterbury Bulldogs and St George Illawarra Dragons, returned to his boyhood club this year to help keep the Super League crown on Merseyside.

In doing so, Saints denied Graham’s former England team-mate and one-club man O’Loughlin a fifth Super League title.

It was decade on from his first Grand final win that the 38-year-old was hoping to once again hold the trophy aloft, but Wigan could not replicate their result of 2010, when they overcame Saints for the first of four titles in 10 years.

As significant as the departures are for both clubs and the English game as a whole, Welsby offered a glorious view of the future with his final-winning heroics at the end of a breakthrough season.

‘The greatest Grand Final’ – analysis

Wales and Bradford Bulls coach John Kear on BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra

What a game! You’ve got to admire both teams.

This has been a game of the highest quality with the highest intensity, a fitting end to the season but you’ve got to feel sorry for Wigan because I thought they were magnificent.

However you’ve got to admire Saints’ attitude and the tenacity to come through this.

This has been the greatest Grand Final, no doubt.

It was pure theatre, it really was, and it was a privilege to be here, it’s just so sad that it wasn’t packed here to witness something like that.

Wigan Warriors: French; Bibby, Hardaker, Gildart, J Burgess; Leuluai, Hastings; Bullock, Powell, Singleton, Isa, Farrell, Partington.

Replacements: Clubb, Greenwood, O’Loughlin, Smithies.

St Helens: Coote; Makinson, Naiqama, Welsby, Grace; Lomax, Fages; Walmsley, Roby, Graham, Taia, Bentley, Knowles.

Replacements: Peyroux, McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Lees, Amor.

Referee: Chris Kendall (RFL).

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